Episode Description

Ahron Cohen, AZ Coyotes’ Youngest CEO, shares with Scott Harkey how hehas always set his sights on the sports industry early on, slowly rising to thetop.

Recognize your skillset and where you want to go. The show’s guest today is Ahron Cohen, AZ Coyotes’ Youngest CEO. Ahron shares with Scott Harkey how he has always set his sights on the sports industry early on. So he grabbed every opportunity he canto get closer to that goal. He would absorb every experience like a sponge and use that to propel him forward. All that combined with luck made him AZ Coyotes’ Youngest CEO! Listen to this episode and learn what you need to accomplish your goal. Dive in! 

Watch the episode here:

Listen to the podcast here:

Episode Transcript

Welcome. I'm pumped because we have my friend, Ahron Cohen, on. He's the youngest CEO in professional sports history, as far as I know. I'm a marketing guy so I got to start with a big headline. Ahron and I've been friends for a long time. We worked with Ahron when he was CEO at the Coyotes. Ahron’s an ASU guy. A lot of fun stories as he's come up through law school at a big law firm to the sports side. I'd love to know a little bit of your background for the people at home. How do you go from a law student to a law firm to the CEO of a major professional hockey team? How does that happen, Ahron? You were 34.

First of all, it's good to be here. It’s a crazy journey of mine. I grew up in Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. It's frozen cold up there but I'm a diehard sports fan. I grew up playing football and basketball. I was lucky enough to get recruited to play football in college. I was looking at different schools and ended up going to Bowdoin College out in Maine. It was an awesome experience.

You're the only person from Minnesota who is not a hockey guy or football guy.

No hockey in Minnesota. I could barely skate and barely play out on the pond. I go to Bowdoin, another big hockey school. No hockey out there and then eventually, I worked my way down here in the desert with a hockey team. I went out there and played football. I loved my experience out there. When I was playing, I knew I wanted to stay involved in sports when I was done. I was struggling to figure out what did that look like. What was I going to do? I had some good buddies that went into coaching. I thought about coaching. I probably have the ability to make the most impact and progress in my career about being in the front office.

It was like, “What do I do to be involved in the front office?” I had some good mentors at that time. I did an internship over the summer with the US congressman in Minnesota, who had a Law degree. He never practiced but he said, “Getting a Law degree. It opens up a lot of good doors. It teaches you how to be thoughtful and analytical. It improves your writing and communication skills. If you get this degree, you can now practice but it’s definitely going to open up doors." I started doing more research. I saw that a lot of people in front offices with different sports teams had a legal background.

I was like, “Let's do it.” The next step was figuring out where am I going to go? When I was done with Bowdoin, I went back to Minnesota for a year. I was working at the Target Corporation. I was doing government affairs there. I was in the process of applying to law schools. I was looking in the Midwest. I was looking at the Northeast. I'd never been out West to Phoenix or Arizona. The Gophers were playing in a Bowl game. I come down here with my late father. I remember my late father and I jumped on a plane. It was like negative ten in Minnesota. We come down here.

The second I get down here, I'm like, “This is nice. There are palm trees. There are cute girls running around. This is a fun place to be.” I was like, “Arizona State, let me get the law school application.” It was a crazy game too because of Minnesota Blue, there have been a couple of things since then. At the time, they blew the biggest lead in Bowl history. First of all, a lot of luck. I think it was a plan for me early on to be involved in sports. I loved sports growing up. I played football and basketball. I ended going to Bowdoin College and played football there. When I was in Bowdoin, I was always trying to find a way to stay involved. I knew I wasn’t going to be playing on Sundays so what other way could I be involved in sports? At that time, I was thinking maybe football, going into coaching in some capacity.

Were you getting straight A's in high school?

Not necessarily. I did all right.

You're telling me earlier you got good grades.

Youngest CEO: Asking questions forces people to think.

I think they have tightened this up a little bit. The Ivy League and Bowdoin were in the NESCAC. You used to get a little help if you were coming in as a recruited football player but you still had to do a pretty good job.

You’re in Minnesota, no hockey. You're playing football. What's up with that?

I grew up playing basketball, football, baseball.

Did your dad play sports?

Yeah, he played some tennis but no football, though.

We talked about how you guys would negotiate in the house. Tell me about that. That's insane.

In a Jewish household, you’re taught to question everything and get into debates. My dad, I thought he was awesome. He always challenged me. He would ask me questions. We've talked about current events. He'd say something and then I'd have a counterpoint. He'd beat me up on that. He'd say, “This is why reason you’re wrong.”

He's confronting you.

Not in a threatening way but around the table.

What did your dad do for work?

The more work you put in, the more work you’ll get out.

He was an anesthesiologist. He grew up in Brooklyn. His father passed away young. He grew up in a single-mother household. He worked his way out, went to medical school and then worked his way West. I appreciated that about my father growing up. He didn't have a dad. He enjoyed spending time with me and taking me to sports. Overall, being together and getting into these good debates. I think that's served me well because then you go to law school, you're inclined to be a good debater and had my fair share of negotiations in the legal career and also with the Coyotes.

You want to be in sports. You knew since junior high like, "I'm going to work in the front office at a sports team."

That was the hope. I didn't know exactly what that looked like. I wanted to do everything I could to find a way to get involved. Right after, I was getting done with school. I was looking to go to law school and looking at different places and around New England and the Midwest. I’ve never been out to Arizona before. I ended up coming down to Arizona for an Insight Bowl. We’re a big Minnesota Gophers fans and they played Texas Tech. I came down when it was like negative ten. You get down here and it's 75 degrees. It's a good recruiting tool. I'm sold. ASU, this looks good.

I started asking around and talking to the Dean and trying to figure out what sports opportunities they had. She told me that she had a connection to the Minnesota Vikings. I was like, “Okay. That sounds pretty good to me.” I'm quizzing her and asking her if she could help me out and increase some opportunities for me. It was nice for her but she made a connection to the Minnesota Vikings General Counsel. I was able to get an internship with him and that was my first foray into sports in the front office.

As you're trying to get into law school, you asked, "Why you should go here and hook me up with a connection?"

Youngest CEO: It really helps leaders when employees question them because it forces them to think through and explain the rationale for everything they’re trying to do. 

She was like, “Yeah, we have a connection to this guy, Kevin Warren, Minnesota Vikings. For people that don't know, Kevin was the General Counsel then COO of Vikings and became the Commissioner of the big ten. She had a connection. He was from Phoenix. It was good enough. I probably should have gotten that in writing that she was going to help me out part of the recruiters but I took it on faith and I was banging on her door during the first week of school. She was nice enough to help me out and get my foot in the door there.

We talked about mentors. He's been a mentor to you. How did that work out for you? I remember you telling me you're taking a final and you ended up working for Kevin. Did you travel to Minnesota?

I was going back to Minnesota after I was done with the semester. I’m studying for these finals. I had the last final coming up and you’re stuck in the library for twenty hours a day. It was terrible. It's like the worst thing you could imagine. I remember I had one final coming up left and I get this call from the Dean. I hadn't talked to her since the first week of school when I gave her my resume and asked her for help here. I thought she blew me off. I get this call and I'm looking at my phone and it's the Dean, like, “What's this about?” Did she think I cheated on a test or something? I answered it. She was like, “I got you that internship with Kevin,” maybe this is next summer or whatever. She's like, “Yeah, it starts in two days.” I take the last final. I hustle up there to Minnesota. No downtime over the break. I started working for Kevin that winter break and then kept that relationship going.

I was working for him throughout law school and after law school but he's an awesome guy. The thing I appreciated and admired the most about him was he got me involved in everything. He was, first of all, involved with everything in the organization and dealing with some crazy issues at the time. They were trying to film the stadium to deal with coach personnel issues. This was in that first winter break but later on, the Packers were accusing the Vikings of tampering. Brett Favre was accused of sending some pictures to people. They dealt with that too.

It's a testament to who Kevin is and what type of leader he is. A lot of people will say, “I got a young person working for me. I'm going to give them a couple of discrete tasks and throw them in a closet somewhere and say, 'Give me a memo,'” or something like that. Kevin had me in every meeting and told me to ask questions, be a sponge, learn from him. That's been so helpful and instrumental in my career and something that I've tried to do with people that have come up under me, to give them the opportunities to just learn and then quiz me after meetings. Why did we do this? What was the thought process? Where we go with this? I also found that that really helps me because it forces you to think through and explain the rationale for everything you're trying to do.

I have a coach. He always talks about some people hand off poop and other people hand diamonds off to people. If you have someone working with you as a leader, how do you give somebody that diamond project? It's like, “Here's what I need. Here's what I expect. Here's what I'm thinking,” but then give them the opportunity to make decisions and finish the project like hand them off a diamond. You go to law school, you intern with an NFL team then you go to Snell & Wilmer right after that as an associate. To those of you who don't know Snell & Wilmer, it's one of the biggest law firms in the Southwest. You get into law school. How do you go about nine years to being CEO from where you started in law school. What were you doing? How did that set you up?

Recognize your skillset and where you want to go.

Part of the reason that I went to Snell was Kevin. I remember when I was with him, I was asking him, “I want to be an executive with a front office team. How do you see that go? What should I be doing?” He said, "If you stay here, I can get you involved in some of these things. I can help you.” At some point, these law firms are so good at training people, working people hard and teaching them how to be good lawyers in establishing those good fundamentals. It’s not something that you can do. As great of a mentor as Kevin was and in terms of exposing me to a lot of different things, it's hard to replicate that training, those basic skills as a lawyer, if you're not going to a law firm. He said, “I think you should go to the biggest law firm in Phoenix if you want to be in Phoenix and learn how to be a good attorney. Keep your eyes open, keep on hustling and look for opportunities in sports eventually then you're going to get good opportunities to be a general counsel and go from there." It was the on-ramp to a team. I went to Snell, a big corporate firm here.

A lot of my friends at Snell are all running companies. Look at Jason Rowley. He was with the Suns. He's a Snell guy. All the team guys, the Snell was the factory.

You learn how to grind. It teaches you good negotiation skills, how to interact with clients and overall hustle. You recognize the more work I put in, the more work I'm going to get out. What I trying to do when I was at Snell, I knew I didn't want to be there forever. I wanted to learn how to be a good attorney. I wanted to stay involved in sports any way I could. I wanted to keep my eyes open at the right time, making that jump into sports. I got very fortunate. I got known as the sports guy at Snell. I was representing the Arizona Coyotes ownership group, the group that was buying the team from the NHL in 2013. I did a good job on that project. I worked hard. We close that deal and a couple of years later, they needed general counsel. I was their first call and there we were.

You’re a young associate doing this work.

I was there for five years.

How old were you at that time?

I was in my late twenties.

In your late twenties, you're putting together all the legal stuff for the Coyotes ownership group. How much were you working a week at that point? Was it 60, 70 hours?

It ebbed and flowed. There were some weeks where you're sleeping in the office. You look back at it. Now I have two young kids and you're married and all this stuff. I always joke with my wife. I'm like, “What did we do when we didn't have kids? How much time did you have?” It's a little different.

I tell young people this all the time. I had some insight because I think law firms, accounting firms, consultancies and ad agencies, we're all in the professional service business. I loved working with you too when you were at the Coyotes because you understand professional services. There are two tracks in professional services. It took me a long time to understand this but when you go to an accounting firm or you're a lawyer going into a law firm or going into an ad agency, these are professional service organizations. We get paid by professionals and companies to be professional advisors whether it's a legal opinion, marketing opinion or accounting. We're paid hired guns.

I think there are two tracks. You could go partner track where you're going to be a partner of the law firm. You love legal. You're going to be a lawyer or you love accounting, you're going to be a partner at the accounting firm or you're going to be a key executive at the ad agency or going to be a sponge and going to learn a ton of shit and provide a ton of value. You're going to work with some of the biggest brands or some of the biggest executives. You're going to take that knowledge and skillset, maybe in-house.

Youngest CEO: Give people opportunities to grow, try new things, and be different. 

I used to get upset when people would leave the agency to go work in-house. I'm like, “What the hell? This is bullshit.” Now I understand that's the game. That's the trade-off is you get some of the sharpest people out of school with great backgrounds who are going to put in 4, 5, 6 awesome years and they're going to make you a lot of money in professional services. They're going to go in-house and going to have so much respect for what they were able to learn at the agency or accounting firm or the law firm. That's your real working degree. I went on a tangent there but would you agree with that?

Yeah, I absolutely agree. I think also recognizing your skillset and where you want to go with your career. While you're there, you're trying to pick up useful insights and things that are going to make you better off and more marketable outside of things. With law firms, M&A, it's interesting. For young kids out there, you're helping companies buy other companies and acquire things. You need to understand how to be a good lawyer and negotiate. There's a big negotiation component. You're drafting agreements but there's also just a get shit done mentality that you have with that stuff.

When you're trying to close and especially as an associate, you're working with the company. It’s usually the CFO or the general counsel or a COO. You're their best friends. You're on calls with them for fifteen hours a day. You're wrangling all these different pieces together. One, it's a good background if you do go in and become a general counsel because it makes you a generalist. You're used to dealing with all these different issues. Two, it makes you very pragmatic in your approach to stuff. You recognize, “We got to roll up our sleeves. We've got to just get shit done. We got to get to the finish line.”

I have a buddy's company and they called it GSD, Get Shit Done Group. I was like, “This is awesome.” I had a lot of people think like, “You got to be strategic and high level.” Yeah, you do. I think a lot of Millennials are very bright and they want to work smart. The Baby Boomer time is like, “Get your hands dirty and have calluses on your hands.“ I get that too. I think there needs to be a balance where sometimes you do have to roll up your sleeves and get shit done. There are ways to work smarter, not harder too but I think maybe sometimes Millennials over-index with this work smarter attitude. There are definitely times where you got to jump in the hole and shovel stuff and figure it out.

Especially when you're younger. I look back at some of those memories. As much as they might have sucked when you're in it and you haven't slept in a couple of days, those are the things you remember. You don’t remember, “I had this very mediocre Tuesday. I left at 5:00. I ate a sandwich.” You remember, “We were working on this deal. We were in the office with a couple of other younger associates until 2:00 in the morning. We're joking around and playing music.” Those are the cool memories. When you're young and you don't have a family and all the other problems of life and other things that you have to deal with, who cares? Soak it up and be a sponge.

Take challenging situations and use that to your advantage.

My favorite pitches of all time were all-nighters and we pitched the next day some crazy stories that we didn't get the account. You said something stupid in the pitch and lost it but you got a good memory out of it. That’s all that matters. It’s the learning and the camaraderie. I want to get back on track here. You're at the law firm. Now you go over to the Coyotes. What are some of the things you learned from running a team?

When I joined the Coyotes, I was the youngest general counsel in the NHL at that time.

How old were you at that time?

I was 31, 32. It’s in that range.

I remember I had dinner with you. I think it was like at the Steak 44 or something. It was the first time I met you when you’re the General Counsel.

It was cool and part of this is a testament to Snell. They have a lot of connectivity in the community. I was getting out and interacting with a lot of different people. I was getting involved in some board stuff even when I was in Snell and the ownership group at the time was from Arizona right when I joined. I think I joined a week after the city of Glendale had canceled the long-term lease. The team was essentially a free agent trying to figure out their long-term arena plans. Partly because of my position as General Counsel but also part of the political, governmental affairs stuff that I could bring to the table, I got involved in that immediately.

I think that was a cool opportunity for me because rather than doing your standard general counsel work, which by the way is a lot for a team but having this other component of things I was working with, got me more interaction with the league and with ownership. Through those on-ramps to connecting with them, I was able to show my worth and prove myself. Some changes, some things with the company and different owners being bought out, enabled me to rise through the ranks and become COO and then did a good job there and eventually became CEO.

I remember you would have calls with Gary Bettman and stuff. You’re in your early 30s and you're talking to the Commissioner of the league about strategic initiatives for a team. That’s insane.

I think if you look at the different teams in Arizona, you say which is the least stable and which has some of the most challenging situations. Most people would say the Coyotes. I would say the Coyotes. It's all in how you look at things. If I join the Suns or the Diamondbacks or the Cardinals as the General Counsel, I don't know if I would have been given the same opportunities to shine and interact with the Commissioner and all these different things. For young people out there, it's a good lesson of taking challenging situations, use that to your advantage and make them opportunities because the challenging opportunities are where you can shine.

You're built for that opportunity and that's why you're there.

There's a good author who wrote The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He also wrote a book called Antifragile. When something happens, when a negative thing or chaos happens, there are three reactions to that. You could either fold. You're fragile. You can break down. You can try to sustain or maintain what you did have so you're resilient. It's very relevant with COVID. The third is this idea of antifragility. You actually thrive in chaotic situations. You use that to your advantage. When you think about COVID, for instance, some companies faltered. Some companies had this mentality of let's dig our heels in and let's just be resilient.

Youngest CEO: Keep pushing the envelope and try new and innovative strategies to get results.

There are some businesses that said, “This is a terrible thing. Nobody wants this to happen. It's been horrific for the entire world but as a business, what do we do with this? How do we not just be resilient but accelerate some of our technologies, accelerating things we're doing? If you carry that over to the Coyotes experience, that's the mentality that we tried to take. How do we use this to give people opportunities to grow, try new things and be different? I don't think we would've had some of those same opportunities if we were with a more stable organization.

Where do you think the sports business is headed? We've got the sports gambling stuff come crazy now, which we've been involved in on the front. It’s been fascinating. You have the college rule now where college players can basically monetize their name and likeness while in school. I think thirteen states approved that. You've had 2020 where sports had no fans. Certainly, ratings are down in the sports world. Where do you think the business of sports headed? We're a pop culture sports society. We thrive on this shit.

One, things are rapidly changing in a moment's notice. There was a day, not too long ago, where nobody knew what the hell NBA Top Shot was and NFTs. A month or two later, you'd have to be living under a rock to not know where these things are. It's rapidly changing and evolving. Historically, when we were younger coming up, I don't think that there is the same sense of when we were 22-year-olds. We were dramatically different from 35-year-olds or 40-year-olds. There's a huge divide now.

One of the biggest things that you're seeing is the fact that Millennials and Gen Z are engrossed with all these things coming at them all the time in technology. They grew up with smartphones and all these other distractions or ways to connect with people or however you want to spin it. It's tough to get their attention for anything. One of the things I think you're seeing in the sports context is there's a tremendous focus on how do we engage with these younger fan segments and how do we create more snackable content for them? They're not going to sit there and watch nine innings baseballs but we still need to monetize them.

Baseball went to seven innings on a few deals. That's a test. It’s the same way cricket. Cricket used to be two days long. Now they have this sprint cricket deal. It's crazy in India.

It's finding ways to engage with people, to keep their attention and for people to interact with sports. There's a company that my guys with ADvantage are actually invested with called Green Park Sports started by Chad Hurley, the YouTube founder. It's essentially an online platform where fans of one team can compete against fans of another team to demonstrate who's the best fan. Older generations are probably looking at this going, “Let me watch the game.” The world's changing rapidly and younger audiences are thinking about sports in a very different way.

I think the digital content scene is fascinating and how people are monetizing digital content, creating digital content, the distribution of digital content is happening and the recycling piece of digital content that you see in sports. Traditional media are so big. They're having a hard time making the shift, whereas like the Barstool sports of the world have grown up in the internet era. It's like part of the fabric of who they are. They get it as we're seeing that shift. We did a lot of things from Coyote social early on, a number of the influencer program. Understand that Marissa is fantastic over the Coyotes on the social side. I'm just curious to see are they ready to stay relevant? The sports teams, can they compete with the internet?

Find ways to engage with people and keep their attention.

They have to constantly evolve. You touched on some of these things. I think historically, sports teams have been slower adopters to technology.

A lot of these organizations too. It's interesting. Before, I worked a lot of sports teams. I love sports as you and I worked with a lot of teams. It's such a small company in a lot of ways. They're very sophisticated companies but not like the big brands I work with. At some level, they're like little family franchisees in some ways.

We built out an analytics team to measure this stuff, figure out what's working, what doesn't and A/B testing this stuff. It wasn't good enough for me. It wasn't good enough for anybody to sit there and say, “We’re going to throw a billboard up," or something and we got to cross our fingers that we're going to sell some tickets. We wanted to measure this. I was proud of the work that we did in terms of launching that influencer campaign, the first in the NHL. By the way, you brought up Marissa, one of the biggest superstars in sports. She's awesome. She did a great job of spearheading this pilot program with Facebook. It was the first in the NHL when you were there. Marissa's getting an award for that, which is cool. You have to keep on pushing the envelope and trying some of these new and innovative strategies to get results.

You've seen this huge shift in terms of digital and social content. It wasn't that long ago we had sponsorship people that were running around, doing deals and they're throwing in 3sponsored assets. They're throwing in social things for free. They're bonuses. The world shifted so much where a lot of marketers now, that's the most valuable real estate that you have. It can tell your story in a much more authentic way than having some sign does.

The business is fascinating and to see how it evolves. It will be interesting to see where sports teams and we talk about them. I take the Phoenix market where they were doing $400 million, the television group in Phoenix, a year. Whereas now, they're lucky if they do $275 million with political advertising. The decline of revenue over the last 5 to 10 years is enormous. You're looking at a 10% to 15% decline in consumption in one year from television. You look at the social stats, Facebook and Instagram doubled in sales, Amazon is up 40% in sales. This new model, certainly shifting and people capitalizing where others are slow to adopt and people being in that in-between zone of a legacy brand that is trying to find ways to be more relevant in a new social digital world.

Speaking of the younger people reading, you talk about challenges and opportunities. These are things where, historically, coming up with the sports landscape, pay your dues and then there's so much competition at the lower end for some of these opportunities. Now you have COVID. A lot of these teams have cut back in terms of entry-level staff positions. Think about, "How do I make myself an asset? How do I make people say, 'I need to hire the young Scott Harkey? I need to get them on the team?'” I'm not doing them a favor by giving them a job. They bring a lot of value. That’s what's so cool because we're sitting here running businesses and talking about how do we reach the Gen Z and Millennial fans. Who knows better how to do that than a Gen Z or a Millennial?

Youngest CEO: Antifragility is this idea of thriving in chaotic situations.

This world is changing so rapidly that some CMO that has been there for many years doesn't necessarily know that much more than somebody that spends a lot of time in their twenties studying this, learning this and jumping on the trends. It drove me nuts. I used to go to these when I was at Snell and I was trying to get into these sports teams. They have these sports lawyers conferences every year. You're going to these and a lot of these general counsel positions as people that were at very good firms and went to the right schools, had the right pedigree, the background and had been practicing for a long time and then they get the Yankees general counsel job.

This was probably back in 2014 or so. They started inviting the Esports people to the conference. You look back and there are these massive brands that are scaling like crazy that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The general counsels are not these 45-year-old grey-haired guys. They're kids. They're 27-year-olds that said, “I saw the trend where this was going. I started reading up on this and wrote some law review articles on it and then I got hired and then here I am.” It's fun. If you see an opportunity, you jump into it and say, “I'm going to be an expert in this field,” you'll be surprised at how many great opportunities are going to come your way

Smart people saw that with the marijuana business and with the eSports. I'm going to have on show David Chen, a partner at FaZe Clan. They're worth like $400 million, this eGaming team. It's fascinating to me at the growth of which things are happening, hyper-growth especially anything digital currency stuff. My son watches a kid on YouTube play Minecraft. I’m like, “This is insane.” It’s way different than I remember. He likes football too.

That's a great point anytime in my career. I think some of the biggest compliments that I've heard from people is like, “Scott, I think you understand where the puck's going.” It’s like a Wayne Gretzky approach, looking at market trends. When you are the demographic and engaged in digital content and you have been on a 21st-century digital voice since you’ve been two years old, coming up. Where's the model going? How can you provide expertise and value in that area? I love having you on. We could talk forever about this stuff.

This is awesome. We had a good time.

Thanks for joining us. If you like this content, someone was trying to get in a sports business, if you know that someone that wants to be an executive or a lawyer, I think Ahron’s advice and perspective are fascinating. Share this, send this to them. Our mission here is to help people at any level in their career, find those insights that are not educationally driven but real-life stuff they can learn from. Thanks to people like Ahron for taking their time to join us and give us some of those. I appreciate it.

Important Links:

Scott Harkey

Entrepreneur & Podcaster

Scott leads a stable of marketing agencies and services offering the world's biggest brands speed, value and results. OH is an independent agency built to serve today's brands through consumer-centric marketing and strategy.